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    Patti LaBelle, the Doyenne of Philadelphia Soul - NY Times Magazine, Part 2

    But Philadelphia has also been a musical inspiration for LaBelle and generations of artists from the city and beyond. “It’s the most productive city I know,” LaBelle said, reeling off a string of artists who were either born in the city or made their reputations there: Bunny Sigler, Thom Bell, Pink, Jill Scott, the Roots, Eve, Musiq Soulchild, her close friend Teddy Pendergrass, Phyllis Hyman, Billy Paul. Philadelphia sits between and thus in the shadows of America’s cultural capital, New York City, and the seat of American power, Washington, D.C. There’s an underdog quality to the place, something that makes its residents try harder than they might. Indeed, when you listen to LaBelle’s vocals on early covers of “Over the Rainbow” (recorded in 1966) or the Irish hymn “Danny Boy” (in 1964) — the young LaBelle singing as though each note will be her last — there’s a feeling of “I can’t believe she did that with this song,” trampling all conventions in her range and phrasing, making us rethink how these Tin Pan Alley standards were supposed to be sung. The essence of Patti LaBelle the singer is that she is always willing to do that to a song, and it’s one reason she is the exemplar of what has become known as the Philly Sound.
    And yet, what is that sound? “You know Philly when you hear it,” LaBelle said coyly. Williams, who’s been based in Philadelphia for the past 40 years, described it as “melodic, harmonic, rhythmic and funky at the same time — the embodiment of multiple genres,” including European classical music: The string arrangements you hear in many of the genre’s songs — like the intro to the O’Jays’ “Stairway to Heaven” (1975) or the proto-disco classic “Love Is the Message” (1973) by MFSB — were often performed by members of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Williams is referencing Philadelphia International Records specifically, the label founded by Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff in 1971 that is synonymous with Philadelphia Soul. The label’s sound married the earthy vocals of local singers with the pop appeal of Motown. Philadelphia Soul was the embodiment of the aspirations of working-class Black Americans who wanted the good life for themselves in the post-civil rights era. At its best, the label balanced those aspirations (the lush strings) with a prideful defiance, emboldened by those signature bass lines, which you can hear on a track like LaBelle’s “Love Bankrupt” (1983). Ostensibly a song about losing love, it’s also a subtle analogy for a retreat from the early gains of the civil rights movement: “You changed on me,” LaBelle sings, and you can tell she means it.
    BORN PATRICIA HOLTE — her family called her Patsy — on May 24, 1944, LaBelle was raised in the Eastwick neighborhood in southwest Philadelphia, a largely Black working-class community, by her parents, Henry and Bertha Holte. She was the second youngest of five children: Her brother, Thomas, was the eldest, and she had three sisters, Vivian, Barbara and Jackie. In her memoir, “Don’t Block the Blessings” (1996), LaBelle recounts a doting father, a railroad man and sometime nightclub performer who braided her hair, cooked her breakfast and had a voice like Nat King Cole. Her mother worked in food service before becoming a full-time homemaker. When her father became abusive toward her mother, the two divorced. On one occasion following her parents’ split, LaBelle was sexually abused by her mother’s new boyfriend. After that, it was the music of Nina Simone, Gloria Lynne, Dakota Staton and James Moody — introduced to her by her brother — that became LaBelle’s “escape hatch … [and] gave me something to believe when I thought I had lost my faith.” She started singing shortly thereafter, with “the broom as a microphone,” as she recalled. She then moved on to the church choir at Beulah Baptist Church — which was close to her childhood home — at a time when the church played a prominent role in the daily lives of Black Americans. It was the choir director, Harriet Chapman, who forced LaBelle to take a solo. “‘Oh, no, Patsy, you have to come in front and do the lead,’” LaBelle remembered her saying. When she protested, Chapman suggested a duet with her son, Nathan. LaBelle got the bug quickly thereafter, singing “God Specializes,” and received the amen from the whole congregation: “They all stood up saying, ‘Hallelujah!’ That’s when I first realized I had talent.”
    LaBelle began her career in 1960 when she joined a quartet that had originally included Jean Brown, Yvonne Hogen and Johnnie Dawson but would later feature the singers Nona Hendryx, Sarah Dash and Cindy Birdsong. (Birdsong would go on to join the Supremes in 1967, making the quartet a trio.) The Ordettes, as they called themselves, signed with Harold Robinson’s Newtown Records label in 1962 and were rechristened the Bluebelles; their lead singer, “little” Patsy Holte, became Patti LaBelle. But the group was largely overshadowed by others like the Shirelles and the Supremes, the latter of which became one of the most successful groups ever; their lead singer, Diana Ross, became a global superstar. But Ross was never tied to one place like LaBelle — she moved to Los Angeles in the early 1970s, and later relocated to New York City. LaBelle, on the other hand, remained, becoming synonymous with her hometown. Diana Ross was a pure pop confection; Patti LaBelle is, and has always been, a home-cooked meal.

  2. #2
    Great article!! Thanks for sharing PNH!


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Ralph Terrana

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